Editor's note: The PS5 version of Yakuza: Like a Dragon will be available on March 2, complete with the graphical and performance perks afforded by the new generation of hardware--and the PS4 version can be upgraded for free, though save data does not transfer. After spending some time with the PS5 version, we can confirm that the game looks and plays as great on PS5 as it does on Xbox Series X. We've updated this review and the score to include the PS5 version of the game. The original review, based on the Series X version and first published on November 4, 2020, follows.
After the conclusion of the series' previous anthology with Yakuza 6, there were big Kiryu-sized shoes to fill. As our new protagonist Kasuga Ichiban steps into the spotlight for Yakuza: Like a Dragon, developer RGG Studio proves it can still capture its signature blend of gripping melodrama and absurdist humor while creating something genuinely fresh for the long-running franchise. The reinvention isn't just in the transition from action-brawler to turn-based combat, which is a great take on traditional RPG battles. It's that the party dynamic in Like a Dragon enables a new kind of storytelling that the series hasn't explored before, one that focuses on the power of embracing friendship and fighting together every step of the way.
Like a Dragon starts anew, providing an entry point for those who have never played a Yakuza game before. But it wouldn't be a proper series entry without the core tenets that define Yakuza--things like captivating exposition-heavy cutscenes, exciting over-the-top fights, and a wealth of side activities that flood the streets of a lifelike Japanese city. In true Yakuza fashion, the tangled web of alliances, betrayals, secrets, and shifts in power across different organizations serve as the foundation for much of its character-driven story. And it's as sweet as ever here.
Kasuga, Number One
Ichiban has a familiar background: born from nothing, scraping by in Kamurocho until a father figure with yakuza ties digs him out of serious trouble. Ichiban's life revolves around that man, Masumi Arakawa, and he eventually follows in his footsteps by pledging himself to the Tojo Clan. Much of what propels Like a Dragon is the connection these two share--from Ichiban taking the fall for a family crime to uncovering why he'd been left for dead in another city after his 18-year prison sentence. Things change in time, and that good-natured kid who grew up loving Dragon Quest (literally in-lore) and doing harmless errands for the gang now has a lot to learn about the criminal underworld as he re-enters society.
Loud, goofy, naive, but always well-meaning, Ichiban sometimes lets his immaturity get the best of him. Others are there to help him learn and grow, and he never wavers in his dedication to the people around him. It rubs off on his companions, whose circumstances unite each of them as you unravel the mystery behind Ichiban's exile to Ijincho, Yokohama (where most of the game takes place). Your core squad of Adachi, Nanba, and Saeko enter the scene for their own reasons--Adachi is the ex-detective whose goal is tied to yours, Nanba is the homeless man who saved your life and has more to him than he lets on, and Saeko is the barmaid who reciprocates the unconditional support she gets from the crew after a personal tragedy.
The Friends You Make Along The Way
Sometimes their motivations for sticking around for Ichiban's messy yakuza business aren't always convincing, but over time, the friendships they form become all the conviction they need. The familiar theme of deep emotional bonds is what Like a Dragon uses to bring something new to the series' strong, established style of storytelling--the party system isn't just an excuse to provide you with a team during the RPG combat. Throughout the story, the cast gets into trouble, fights their way out, drinks, and celebrates together, and they carry each other to the end. Much of the Yakuza series thus far was about the struggles of Kazuma Kiryu, a man who has a heart of gold, yet always kept everyone at arm's length. Like a Dragon, however, flips the script and explores the power of letting people in, and it embraces the uplifting social dynamic its characters create.
Each main cast member has their own life stories to tell and gets a bit of the spotlight with Ichiban throughout the main campaign. But some of the more personal moments come through in what are called Drink Links--basically Persona-style social link scenarios where party members open up about their personal lives over glasses of whiskey at their home bar called Survive Bar. You increase a bond rating with them, improve social stats, and unlock combat perks along the way; more importantly, you really get to know the characters who are fighting alongside each other.
The Drama Of Yokohama
That general sentiment can also be applied to the Ijin Three, the trio of gangs that uphold a delicate balance in Yokohama--it consists of the Japanese Seiryu Clan, the Korean Geomijul, and the Chinese Liumang. The unnerving tension between them enriches the narrative, as these organizations become important for chasing the truth. A few of their members (who I won't reveal for spoiler reasons) are great standouts as the story develops, and also bring out a bit of Asian diversity, giving Korean and Chinese characters more nuanced portrayals than in previous Yakuza games. In Like a Dragon, your enemies today could be your dearest allies tomorrow, and vice versa.
Internal rifts and philosophical differences will always destroy organizations from the inside. When one group dedicates itself to good deeds to help the less fortunate, others see it as a chance to prey on the helpless and seize power. It's an ever-evolving game of 4D chess you'll see play out, and it instills an eagerness to see what happens chapter after chapter. Another piece of the bigger picture is right-wing nationalism, portrayed by a group called Bleach Japan. While Like a Dragon's climactic political drama leans on the outlandish villainy of a power-hungry few, it takes narrative opportunities to express clear opposition to anti-immigration, anti-sex work, and anti-poor politics in key story beats, and these themes also become part of what drives Ichiban and company.
I've made it quite clear that I'm a sucker for Yakuza's melodrama. However, I'm willing to admit that Like a Dragon has one too many simple plot twists, which can come across as a way to elongate the main story. Perhaps it bites off more than it can chew at the tail-end where plot points are introduced as quickly as they are resolved. They're not bad story beats per se, but they can feel overbearing when there's already enough enticing narrative established.
Regardless, Yakuza has built a reputation on captivating drama and strong characterizations, and it's those expectations that its games will be judged by. With that criteria in mind, Like a Dragon hardly ever misses.
Like A Dragon Quest
Ichiban's eccentric personality is a force of nature, and it's even what fuels the combat system. His imagination runs wild, and in his mind, he sees himself and his friends as the heroes of the day, just like in Dragon Quest (Ichiban's words, not mine). Enemies transform into possessed beings or extremely silly delinquents like aggressive chefs, unhinged nudists, or just bad dudes with glowing red eyes--some with punny names like "capitalist punisher" for evil salarymen or "hands catcher" for evil baseball players. And your own party members transform into their equipped jobs with sometimes ridiculous costume changes.
His reverence for Dragon Quest is charming, and shows that he really is a kid at heart; it's part of what fills him with the determination to keep fighting, even in the most dire of situations. Like a Dragon asks you to suspend your disbelief more so than previous Yakuza games to accommodate Ichiban's child-like imagination, and you know what? I'm here for it.
Like a Dragon uses a rather straightforward turn-based combat system with standard attacks, special moves (sometimes enhanced by simple QTE button prompts), and spells of different affinities and status effects. Managing your party's various capabilities and strategizing to dispatch enemies in smart ways is at the core of the fun. How you handle your turns in relation to the enemies you face in any given battle presents a familiar but engaging puzzle-like challenge of devising the best course of action. When you barrel down consecutive fights in dungeon-like scenarios, combat maintains a steady, enjoyable flow, whereas the bigger set-piece boss fights test your command of the system. What was used actually comes together remarkably well for Yakuza's own RPG debut.
Combat is also an opportunity for the game to crank up Yakuza's tradition of ridiculous over-the-top moves, and it's a big reason why combat is exciting to engage with. The spirit of the series' wild heat actions comes through in the skills you'll learn, like summoning aggressive fans by performing a musical act or leaping through the air to spit literal fire upon your enemies. The intricacies of combat are driven by the job system, which is essentially a set of swappable character classes that play differently with their own unique abilities. And as long as you build up a good variety of healing, buffs, and strong attack types, you'll be in good shape.
Like a Dragon isn't without its faults, however. It's quite apparent in the last few chapters that the game began to rely on long drawn-out fights. I still had to stay sharp and maximize damage with each turn or use heals and buffs at opportune times to stay alive, but some of these moments boiled down to a war of attrition. Although I love that Like a Dragon can be really challenging, a little grinding is required to even survive against some bosses. Thankfully, there's a late-game combat arena side activity that offers a ton of EXP and useful items, but the necessity of it breaks some of the momentum as you heard towards the conclusion. (And beware that there is a point in the story where you're required to have lots of money, and if you haven't invested time to make money, well you better get on it.)
There's More To Life Than Fisticuffs
It's not all drama, fighting, and silly superpowers, though. While the location of Kamurocho has become a sort of character itself, the much larger Ijincho (a mashup of the real Yokohama) does offer its own distinct vibe. Compared to Kamurocho, it feels like taking a deep breath of fresh air when you walk through the open spaces of Hamakita Park, shopping outlets on Isezaki Road, and the streets of Chinatown. Even the alleyways and homeless camps of the lower-class areas breathe life into Ijincho in equal measure. The city is bustling with things to do outside of the main story, as is Yakuza tradition.
My personal favorite of karaoke is back. The rhythm minigame presents another avenue for the characters to express themselves in an especially charming fashion. Nanba brings back the classic "Baka Mitai," and Adachi belts out his own performance of "Machine Gun Kiss." Saeko's friendship anthem "Spring Breeze" warms my heart as she plays the piano while the rest of the gang enthusiastically cheers her on. And Ichiban's own song, "The Future I Dreamed Of," showcases his own inspirations as he reflects on his upbringing. When a few other characters join the party, the karaoke playlist grows. Having it back at Survive Bar, where everyone meets up and drinks together, really creates a homelike atmosphere for Like a Dragon.
One of the very important money-making minigames is Ichiban Confections, the business management simulator. You help a family business grow from selling sweets at a hole-in-the-wall shop to becoming C-suite executives with multiple ventures featured in commercials. It's goofy as hell but quite involved, as you need to manage employees, assign jobs, and make investment decisions. You also have to play a separate and hilarious minigame where you frantically argue with shareholders to earn their support. There's also Dragon Kart, which is an entire kart-racing minigame with its own ridiculous side story and tournament-style challenges. The last one I'll mention is the quiz minigame, which exists under the guise of an adult school where Ichiban learns about history and culture (and even has its own Sega-themed quizzes), helping him improve social stats. These activities are lively and rewarding in their own small ways, whether it's money, perks, gear, or genuinely funny side stories that build up the wild life of Kasuga Ichiban.
Even after spending 40 hours with Yakuza: Like a Dragon to complete its main story and experience a decent chunk of optional content, there's still more to see and do with substories and conclusions to optional quests.
The Future Is Bright For Yakuza
As the game executes on a melodramatic, multi-faceted conclusion typical of a Yakuza game, you're encouraged to reflect on the hardships and tragedies Ichiban had to endure. It's rare, however, to also see the protagonist of a Yakuza game also do the same. You can see the journey, the struggles, the challenges, the growth, and the friendships worn plainly on his face. Yakuza has a penchant for exaggeration, this game really goes for it, and it works. Ichiban is an expressive character, sometimes to the point of parody, but it's endearing and often inspiring. Ichiban is an idealist and a bit naive, but he's also what his friends have made him through their own personalities and their sense of justice: a hero.
At so many moments, I stood up screaming at my TV in absolute excitement (and shed a few tears here and there), seeing how Ichiban develops, and how Like a Dragon ties back into the broader Yakuza lore for long-time fans. Ichiban stands tall among the legends that the Yakuza games have created, and Like a Dragon isn't shy about drawing from that well again. Maybe it's a bit on the nose, but for me, I can't help but feel a reinvigorated passion for the franchise.
For RGG Studio's first crack at an RPG, it's a damn fine result. It delivers what I love most about Yakuza and introduces new ideas that largely pay off. Ichiban isn't doing it alone, either. He has friends and mentors, ones who've helped him fight and overcome personal tragedies. It was an absolute thrill to watch him grow, and that's what's most important for a game so focused on its characters. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a passing of the torch, and a fantastic entry in a beloved franchise that proves that it's in good hands with Kasuga Ichiban.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon is featured as one of the best PS5 games.